Television

This Week’s Worst Person in Westeros: Otto Hightower

In House of the Dragon’s second episode, the race to the bottom continues.

They stand in a castle in front of a fireplace with candles lit around them, clasping hands, as he towers over her
Otto (Rhys Ifans) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey). Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

After each episode of House of the Dragon, HBO’s prequel to Game of Thrones, Slate writers will gather to answer an age-old question: Who is the worst person in Westeros? This week: senior editor Sam Adams and books and culture columnist Laura Miller answer the call.

Sam Adams: Hello, Laura! And welcome to the Worst Person in Westeros. Last week, we took the Clue approach and said that the worst person on House of the Dragon was every single person on House of the Dragon, and while we could probably do that every week, it feels a little like cheating. So let’s start naming (and, even more difficult, spelling) names. Last week, Daemon led a reign of terror through King’s Landing and got himself softly exiled. Six months later, he’s pissed off to the family seat at Dragonstone, the castle that should belong to the heir to the throne—i.e. his niece Rhaenyra, not him. On his way out, he snatches the dragon’s egg that was meant to lie in the cradle next to King Viserys’ son, Baelor, as if Daemon drunkenly dubbing a dead infant “King for a Day” wasn’t bad enough. Then he lies about both being engaged and getting his wife-to-be pregnant to lure Viserys into a confrontation—and sends the wedding invitation out with two days’ notice, which is just rude. And he doesn’t even tell Mysaria, his supposed wife-to-be, about the ruse. (As a sex worker, she says she long ago took precautions to make sure she could never get pregnant, but apparently Daemon never asked.) And to make matters worse somehow, when Rhaenyra shows up on dragonback and demands the egg back, Daemon just … gives it to her. Is he so bored that he’s ginning up potentially fatal confrontations just for kicks? Is he going to do this every week? What do you think, Laura? Is Daemon the Worst?

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Laura Miller: OK, Daemon is consistently terrible, but there’s no reason to let the rest of this crew off the hook. I find Viserys to be a sympathetic character overall, a guy who gets forced into bad acts to avoid even more disastrous consequences, but I do think that his love for his brother blinds him to the danger that Daemon represents. Does it ever really work to try to sideline an ambitious hothead? Someone truly ruthless, like Cersei Lannister, would have eliminated Daemon long ago. And someone shrewder would have sent him off on some dangerous mission of conquest to slake his appetite for violence and glory, and hopefully gotten him killed as a side benefit. As it is, Viserys has his brother married off to a woman he loathes in a province he despises, and lets him run around the city as a glorified police commissioner, complete with a militia primarily loyal to him. It’s just asking for trouble. Viserys is not a bad guy. He’s a decent normal person in a role that requires someone who isn’t, but good intentions aren’t enough.

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Adams: As much as everyone likes a good king, decency does not seem to be a luxury the rulers of Westeros can afford. But really it’s Viserys’ passivity rather than his goodness that’s the issue. Rather than keeping the peace through a show of strength, as both Corlys and Rhaenyra advise, he chooses to respond to the Crab Feeder’s provocations by, apparently, doing nothing. He names Rhaenyra heir, but only after sacrificing his own wife in a bid to produce a son, and does it more to cockblock his brother than to stick it to the patriarchy. He can’t even muster the courage to talk to his 15-year-old daughter (although as the father of a teen, I admit I get that part). We know this will be a series about the fall of the Targaryen dynasty, and I’m sure there’s more active badness ahead, but his spinelessness makes him impossible to root for, and sometimes difficult to even watch.

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And then there’s the matter of his abrupt engagement to Alicent Hightower, which he pulls out of thin air in an apparently perverse bid to thwart Corlys’ machinations, and doesn’t think to mention it to either her or her father, his most trusted advisor, beforehand. He blanches at the idea of marrying Corlys’ 12-year-old daughter, but it’s open season on 15-year-olds? I doubt Westeros even has an age of consent, but that seems, as my teen would say, a little sus.

Then again, to paraphrase The Big Lebowski: 12-year-olds, dude. Are Corlys and Rhaenys the Worst for offering up their tween daughter, the Lady [sic] Laena? Corlys lays out a strong political argument, in that it would join the oldest and most powerful houses in the realm and silence stirrings about the stability of Viserys’ succession. But still … ick. The fact that Rhaenys has told Laena she won’t have to have sex with Viserys until she hits the ripe old age of 14 does not really improve matters. So what about it? Are Corlys and/or Rhaenys the Worst?

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Miller: They’re pretty bad, I agree, although when Rhaenys lays out the facts of the situation to Rhaenyra—that the barons of Westeros will simply never accept a female ruler—I suppose you could argue that they are trying to secure their daughter’s safety. Rhaenyra thinks that she can change the world, but Rhaenys has long ago given up that hope. It’s an interesting question: Did Rhaenys undersell herself, and will Rhaenyra succeed where her second cousin failed? Rhaenyra certainly showed a lot of initiative in flying Syrax to Dragonstone to defuse Daemon’s latest provocation. He takes over her castle, claims to be marrying a new wife whom he falsely says is pregnant, and then steals a dragon egg for the non-existent child she’s supposedly carrying. Rhaenyra turns up, brushes aside the dudes who are gearing up to fight Daemon over all of this, and tells him that if he has such a problem with her ascendency, well, here she is: Why doesn’t he just kill her? My guess, though, is that he’s going to try to marry her instead. Those Targaryens do love their incest. If this happens, Rhaenys and Corlys—and more importantly, their children—will be in a bad spot. Daemon, unlike Viserys, won’t hesitate to eliminate any potential rivals. So while as gross as viewers (and Viserys himself) find the prospect of marrying off a little girl to an old man, maybe her parents feel that it’s the best way to keep her safe. I’d argue that the other parent pushing his daughter into Viserys’ arms, Otto Hightower, might be worse. It’s a marriage that seems destined to cause major problems. Is he the worst person in Westeros?

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Adams: I noted Otto was getting just a little pimp-y last week, suggesting his daughter go to comfort the grieving king: When she asked if he meant in the king’s chambers, he didn’t exactly say yes, but he sure took his time saying no. He’s got sound reasons for suggesting the king reject Corlys’ offer, but you also have to suspect he’s leaving the field clear for Alicent, knowing the king will turn to her for advice, especially when it comes to how to talk to his daughter. It’s probably pushing it to say he knew what would happen—he may be a schemer, but he’s no Petyr Baelish—and yet when Viserys makes his abrupt announcement, he sure doesn’t seem surprised. It hardly seems like the best thing for the realm for Viserys to wed his Hand’s teenage daughter, let alone to spurn and humiliate his most powerful ally in front of the entire small council. But the guy is lonely, and Alicent is kind, and Otto apparently knows him well enough to exploit both of those things. It’s surely not the worst marriage anyone in Westeros has ever been coerced into, but still, pretty gross, right?

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Miller: By the time you’re two episodes in, House of the Dragon has begun to redefine your notions of “gross.” Viserys’ rejection of Laena Velaryon makes it clear that he has no sexual interest in children per se. He’s just sad and lonely and so is Alicent. She has a maternal vibe with him that de-emphasizes their age difference, and they seem to genuinely care for each other. But while Rhaenys tells Rhaenyra that Viserys is “no fool,” I’m not sure I agree. He’s making a choice of his own comfort over what’s best for everyone—and what’s really gross is that this show makes you say, “He really ought to have married the 12-year-old”!

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It’s clear that Otto manages the king’s life in more ways than just his monarchal concerns. Remember how at the tournament, the messenger who came to announce that the queen’s labor was in danger first spoke to Otto, not to Viserys. Otto doesn’t have to tell Alicent to throw herself at Viserys because he knows not only that she couldn’t do that, but also that Viserys wouldn’t want her to, that he’d be sickened by a sexual overture during his mourning. He realizes that Viserys is vulnerable, that they’re both tenderhearted, and that this will draw them together. And his motive for doing this is simply a lust for power. What’s appalling, to my surprise, is not that he’s aiming to pair his teenaged daughter with a man who’s so much older than she is. It’s that he’s marrying her off to a man who can’t protect her and thrusting her into a den of vipers. Alicent might have had a happy life marrying some minor lord and going off to live in his castle and have his babies. She’s meant to be conventional in the way Sansa was in Game of Thrones. She’s not ambitious. She’s not tough. That court is going to eat her alive. Presumably Otto thinks he can parlay this into more power for himself, but he’s no spring chicken, and what’s going to happen to her when he’s not around anymore? Rhaenyra can take care of herself, but Alicent is no queen. Whatever short-term goal this is serving for Otto is purely selfish, which is why I think he’s even worse than the couple who are trying to marry their tween to Viserys. He’s the worst person in Westeros.

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